The pre-Socratic philosopher Thales maintained that all things come from water; in Southern California he would have found support for his theory. The water from which Los Angeles and the Imperial Valley rose did not, however, appear of itself. The rain in California stays mainly in the north: Only about ten percent of the state’s precipitation falls on Los Angeles and the region to its south. Like everything else about the area, therefore, water here was produced by will—Friedrich Nietzsche as well as Thales would have been pleased by the emergence of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Pasadena, and the rich farmlands that fed these cities. In ancient times Southern California had been submerged by the Colorado River’s emptying into the Salton Sea. Tens of thousands of years ago, geological upheavals rerouted the river to the Gulf of California, leaving rich alluvial soil that turned to desert. George Chaffey envisioned returning the Colorado to its former outlet through irrigation. Unsound engineering to divert the river would cause, or at least aggravate, a series of floods in 1905-1907 that again submerged part of what Chaffey named the Imperial Valley, but a million acres came under cultivation. Starr discusses the conflict between those such as William Ellsworth Smythe, who wanted the government to control irrigation in order to create cooperative social democracy on the New Zealand model, and Chaffey and his supporters, who hoped to use a public resource—the Colorado River—for private profit. In typical American fashion, the latter view triumphed.
While Chaffey looked east for water, Los Angeles turned north to the Owens Valley, two hundred miles away. The federal government had planned to use the Owens River to irrigate small farms in Central California, but Los Angeles won, gaining the right to drain the valley for water and electricity. This water allowed the city to grow rapidly because Los Angeles refused to share the life-giving substance with nearby communities unless they agreed to annexation.
Migration, too, fostered growth. Starr notes that in the 1920’s two million Americans moved to California, most of them to the southern part of the state. Of these, 1.2 million settled in Los Angeles County, 661,375 in the city itself, helping to triple its population during the decade (576,673 people in 1920, 1,470,516 ten years later). Such expansion was fostered by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, which sent idealized photographs to newspapers around the country. The discovery of oil and the rise of the film and aviation industries also fueled the great expansion of the 1920’s.
One consequence of the increase in population was more traffic. The Los Angeles Railway and Pacific Electric both provided public transportation, but by 1924 some 200,000 vehicles a day were competing with the surface trains for downtown street space. In 1926, Angelenos rejected a bond issue to fund elevated or submerged tracks, thus dooming interurban rail service and making the city a motorized municipality. The freeway system therefore arose, as did the Miracle Mile along Wilshire Boulevard, whose developers bet, rightly, that people would drive to shop. To escape the traffic nightmare of downtown Los Angeles, people moved to the suburbs; just as the subways and limited land prompted Manhattan’s vertical growth, so the automobile fostered Los Angeles’ horizontal development, a pattern of expansion that only exacerbated the traffic problem by making suburbanites still more dependent on their vehicles.
The migrants to Los Angeles may have rejected the 1926 bond issue because they did not want to reproduce the Chicago or New York they had left behind. Just as they envisioned a different cityscape, so they dreamed of new lives for themselves, new identities. Starr shows how Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum turned their fictional worlds of Tarzan and Oz into reality after they moved from the Midwest to Southern California. Others skipped the step of first imagining a world on paper and simply re-created themselves. Repeatedly in this account one encounters people who went west to metamorphose, just as Europeans for three centuries had crossed the Atlantic to begin life anew.
Among those Starr discusses is Lunden Ellsworth Behymer. He had managed a general store in Dakota Territory before coming to Los Angeles in...
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